Al-Qaeda terrorism in the U.S. may have started a decade ago, with the assassination of a radical Rabbi Meier Kahane in New York City. On November 5, 1990, as a crowd gathered in a hotel to hear him speak, deadly shots rang out. The gunman, El Sayyid Nosair, was wounded in a battle with police. A search of his home led to a “treasure trove of information,” according to Ed Norris, who was then a chief in the NYPD. They found evidence that there was an Islamic terrorist cell operating on U.S. soil in the form of Arabic-language terrorist manuals, bomb-making instructions, videotapes and photographs of New York City landmarks.”We knew we had something–something substantial, something unusual,” says Norris. “This was not just a lone gunman who was nuts and decided to kill someone in a ballroom.” The FBI took charge of the material but, incredibly, they didn?t translate it until years later.
The Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of FBI agents and NYC police officers, hadsurveillance photographs of Nosair at the El Farooq Mosque in the Arab section of Brooklyn, which was led by blind cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who had just been released from an Egyptian prison after being acquitted on charges connected with the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Now he was in the United States preaching jihad against the U.S. and the FBI knew it, but did nothing about it. What they didn?t know was that he was being supported by a man halfway around the world named Osama bin-Laden.
Neil Herman, the FBI agent who ran the JTTF, says his agents noticed a growing number of people traveling to and from Afghanistan, who were stopping off at the El Farooq Mosque. He asked the Justice Department for permission to wiretap the mosque, but because it was a house of worship, they wouldn’t allow it. So Herman had to rely on informants.
One informant, Emad Salem, gave the JTTF information about plans to break Nosair out of prison and of plots to place a series of bombs around New York City. But before the JTTF had a chance to learn the bombing targets, the case was shut down because Salem was afraid to wear a wire or testify in court.
Then on February 26, 1993, a truck bomb exploded in a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center, killing six people, injuring 1,000 others and causing more than $700 million in damage. It turned out the men behind the bombing were the same people the JTTF had been investigating before they were shut down. “The fact is that in 1990, myself and my detectives, we had in our office in handcuffs, the people who blew up the World Trade Center in ?93?We were told to release them,” Norris says.
After the bombing, the terrorism task force managed to learn the identity of the master bomb-maker: Ramzi Yousef, who had been trained in Afghanistan and had come to the U.S. six months before the World Trade Center bombing. But by the time they identified him, Yousef had vanished. They went back to their informant Salem, who uncovered another plot?a plan to blow up several major New York landmarks, including UN headquarters and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. A search of Yousef’s computer revealed plans to fly a plane loaded with explosives into CIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Then came the USS Cole bombing. The CIA surreptitiously videotaped a terrorist meeting which they played for the FBI. Investigator Michael Stone says “The FBI agents recognized the men from the Cole investigation, but when they asked the CIA what they knew about the men, they were told that they didn’t have clearance to share that information. It ended up in a shouting match.”
The CIA waited six weeks before passing on the terrorists? names to the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, urging the agencies to stop the men from entering the country. But by then, both men were already in the U.S. taking flight lessons, in preparation for 911.
Will the FBI and CIA do a better job of coordinating in the future? Last time we checked, they couldn?t read each other?s e-mail messages. To find out, read ?The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI? by Ronald Kessler, click here.
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